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Saturday, July 25

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Show, Don’t Tell in an Opening Page

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines

Submissions currently in the queue: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 1.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the beginning sound too adult?

2. Is there enough of a hook in the scene?

3. Is this beginning being shown or told?

4. How would you describe the narrative distance?

5. Based on its beginning, and the information in the included note, do you think it would be an appropriate story for 7th and 8th graders?

Market/Genre: Young Adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: One year ago as Christmas Eve became Christmas, Paul’s parent’s house caught fire. The cause of the fire was later determined to be faulty Christmas lights. His mom, dad, and sister died. Paul blames himself because his mom had told him to turn off the tree lights before going to bed and he forgot. He’s siting in church after Christmas Eve services. This is Paul’s story of despair, guilt, pain and loss. It’s also the story of his attempts to overcome their debilitating effect on his life. Despite the initial setting and the character of the vicar this story isn’t intended to have a religious slant.

The vicar turned. From the faint moonlight that entered the gothic window Paul could see that he was about to speak to him. He was stooped and bent. The light gave his gray hair a silver sheen that was almost luminescent. The vicar paused and changed his mind. He used the candle snuffer as a staff. His stiff steps were possible because of the support it provided. He made his way to were Paul sat.

“May I join you?” he asked. His smile was slight but warm.

Paul moved over.

“You’re in trouble,” he said.

“No, no I’m not.” The speed with which Paul said the words told the vicar of his lie.

“Please look at me my child.”

Paul’s eyes met his gaze. Even in the shadows Paul could see the bright shimmering of kindness that reached down into his soul.

“Many Christmas’s have come and gone in my life and with them the troubled souls that haunt these hallowed walls at this time of our Savior’s birth.”

Was this an invitation, a Christmas gift of sorts, to unburden himself?

“Please tell me.” It was his humble supplication.

“It was a year ago today that my family and I were here. It was an evening of magic and majesty. The swirl of peace, joy and hope filled every part of myself.”

Paul’s voice began to quaver. The vicar put his hand on Paul’s arm and said, “Tell me about your pain.”

“My parents and sister died last Christmas. It was my fault."

My Thoughts in Blue:

The vicar turned. [From the faint moonlight that entered the gothic window Paul could see that he was about to speak to him.] Telling [He was stooped and bent.] How is this a clue that he was going to speak to Paul? The light gave his gray hair a silver sheen that was almost luminescent. [The vicar paused and changed his mind.] It was in Paul’s POV before, now it’s in the vicar’s POV He used the candle snuffer as a staff. [His stiff steps were possible because of the support it provided.] Telling He made his way to [were] where Paul sat.

“May I join you?” he asked. His smile was slight but warm.

Paul moved over.

“You’re in trouble,” he said.

“No, no I’m not.” [The speed with which Paul said the words told the vicar of his lie.] Telling. It’s also the vicar’s POV, not Paul’s

“Please look at me my child.”

Paul’s eyes met his gaze. Even in the shadows [Paul could see the bright shimmering of kindness that reached down into his soul.] Tellish. Not bad on its own, but combined with the rest it adds to the told feel

“Many Christmas’s have come and gone in my life comma and with them comma the troubled souls that haunt these hallowed walls at this time of our Savior’s birth.”

[Was this an invitation, a Christmas gift of sorts, to unburden himself?] This is close internal thought, which puts the POV deep in Paul’s perspective

“Please tell me.” [It was his humble supplication.] This reads too adult. Or is this the vicar asking? It’s unclear without a tag

[“It was a year ago today that my family and I were here. It was an evening of magic and majesty. The swirl of peace, joy comma and hope filled every part of myself.”Who’s speaking here? The formality sounds like the vicar, but Paul’s voice quavers next, which suggests this is him. If so, kids don’t speak like this.

Paul’s voice began to quaver. The vicar put his hand on Paul’s arm and said, “Tell me about your pain.”

[“My parents and sister died last Christmas. It was my fault."] Makes me want to know more. This might be your opening line, or something in your opening paragraph.

The Questions:

1. Does the beginning sound to adult?


Yes (readers chime in). The vocabulary, phrasing, and subject matter sounds like two adults speaking, not a child and an adult. There’s no sense of “kid view” in this, with Paul seeing the church and vicar as a child or young teen would.

It’s also a very serious subject—which doesn’t mean it can’t been for teens, but when starting with something so serious and adult, it helps to balance it with something that puts it solidly in a young adult world or perspective.

(Here’s more on How to Write With a Teen Voice)

2. Is there enough of a hook in the scene?

The last line is the hook. That makes me want to know more, but nothing prior to that draws me into the story. I’d suggest bringing that up closer to the front and making Paul struggle more with whether or not to tell the vicar this.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

You might also reconsider if this is the right place to start this scene (I'm guessing this is the opening scene). There’s no clear goal yet about why Paul is there. If this is about Paul’s attempts to overcome his grief and guilt, perhaps start with him struggling with that, or feeling guilty, or being somewhere on Christmas Eve and being overwhelmed by his emotions. Show him losing the battle and the first step that leads to him trying to fix that problem.

(Here’s more on The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

3. Is this beginning being shown or told?

Mostly told, though there are some shown lines as well. Let’s look at the specific lines and analyze them.
The vicar turned.
This shows, as it describes what the vicar does, and it’s something Paul can see by observing him.
From the faint moonlight that entered the gothic window Paul could see that he was about to speak to him.
This tells, as it’s not Paul observing the vicar in the moonlight and describing it, but an explanation of how Paul figures out the vicar was about to speak. However, there’s nothing here that shows what clues Paul saw to make this assumption. The vicar turned, and he’s barely lit my moonlight, so it must be hard to see any specific details. Yet somehow Paul knows he’s about to speak to him "from the moonlight." What does the vicar do to make Paul think this? If you were sitting in a church and someone nearby turned around, why would you think they were about to come over and speak to you?
He was stooped and bent.
This shows, as it’s something Paul can observe.
The light gave his gray hair a silver sheen that was almost luminescent.
Also shown. This is something Paul could observe and think.
The vicar paused and changed his mind.
This tells and shifts out of Paul’s point of view. Paul can see the vicar pause in his forward movement, but he has no idea why. There are no ways to tell from the outside when someone changes their mind about something—especially if they haven't expressed the original goal to you.
He used the candle snuffer as a staff.
This shows, but it’s a bit jarring, as most readers probably won’t picture a candle snuffer long enough to use as a walking stick. Some will, if they’re familiar with the religious setting, but most will need more description. Also, "staff" conjured walking stick images for me, but might not for others.
His stiff steps were possible because of the support it provided.
This is tellish. It’s possible Paul can see that the vicar uses the snuffer as a cane and his weight is being supported, but it also feels like an outside explanation of why the vicar is using the snuffer. It’s also a bit redundant, because it just said that the vicar used it as a staff. The reason to use it that way is for walking support. It's also a bit murky, because his "stiff steps" were possible, not his ability to walk.
He made his way to were Paul sat.
This is tellish. It’s unclear whose point of view this is. If it’s Paul, then it’s more told, because Paul doesn’t really know if the vicar is coming to where he sat. Perhaps the vicar is coming directly toward him, smiling, showing signs he’s trying to engage Paul (and if so, Paul can reasonably assume the vicar is coming to him). Perhaps he’s walking down the aisle and will just pass by on his way to another part of the church (if so, Paul has no idea if the vicar means to join him or not). There’s nothing in the text that shows how Paul figures out the vicar is coming to talk to him, or clues as to the vicar's intent.
The speed with which Paul said the words told the vicar of his lie.
This is told and a point of view shift. It explains how the vicar knows Paul is lying. How does someone who is lying act? What might Paul think that shows readers he’s lying—without saying “he was lying.”
Even in the shadows Paul could see the bright shimmering of kindness that reached down into his soul.
This is tellish. “Paul could see” is a filter statement that explains what Paul sees, but if this is his point of view, everything he describes is what he sees. It’s not a terrible tell, and plenty of writers use “could see” in this manner, but combined with the rest of the told prose, it feels more told than it would on its own. It also pushes readers farther away from Paul's point of view.
It was his humble supplication.
This tells. The dialogue shows his humble supplication (Please tell me), so it doesn’t need to be explained the tag.

As a whole, this snippet is explained by the author more than dramatized through the eyes of the point of view character (Paul), so it feels told. The motivations and reasons the characters act, and how they interpret other character’s actions, are stated outright without any physical clues or actions that Paul could observe in order to figure out what was going on.

I’d suggest thinking about what clues and actions these characters would exhibit that would allow Paul to know, assume, judge what the vicar was doing. And also add the physical clues that show Paul feeling however he’s feeling.

This snippet is a good start to understand who feels, does, and thinks what in the scene, but you’ll want to take those details and put them firmly in a narrator’s head. Since this is young adult, and Paul is the protagonist, Paul is probably your narrator. Personal journeys are typically tighter points of view, especially in YA. It allows for a closer emotional connection.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

4. How would you describe the narrative distance?

Inconsistent. The point of view jumps from the vicar to Paul, from omniscient to tight. There’s no clear narrator and the “camera” of the story jumps around. For example:

This is far narrative distance with an omniscient narrator: The speed with which Paul said the words told the vicar of his lie. (An explanation)

This is a tight narrative distance with Paul as the narrator: Was this an invitation, a Christmas gift of sorts, to unburden himself? (Paul's internal thought)

Though I’d recommend a tight third person point of view centered on Paul for this type of novel, any point of view style and narrative distance is appropriate for YA. It depends on what you want for your story. Just be consistent and understand who your narrator is and what your narrative distance is.

(Here’s more on Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel)

5. Based on its beginning, and the information in the included note, do you think it would be an appropriate story for 7th and 8th graders?

On this beginning, no. It’s too adult, there’s no clear point of view character or protagonist, and there’s no teen or young adult voice. On the note, yes. A serious book about a kid overcoming grief could appeal to kids going through this, or readers who enjoy darker, gritty stories. Many young adult novels cover dark and realistic topics like this.

But I also spotted a bit of a red flag in how you describe this novel.
This is Paul’s story of despair, guilt, pain and loss. It’s also the story of his attempts to overcome their debilitating effect on his life.
There’s no clear goal or conflict in this. This is more character arc and theme, and only a bare hint of plot. You probably know what the “debilitating effect on his life” is, and what the “attempts to overcome” that are, but I just wanted to point this out in case you didn’t. The debilitating effects and what will happen if Paul doesn’t come to terms with his guilt are the stakes. What he does to deal with that is the plot. What's keeping him from this is the conflict. So what's the concrete external problem he has to solve that results in his recovery? Make sure you know what that is.

Person vs Self conflicts are tricky, as they are influenced heavily by the internal conflict and character arc. But it’s the external problems and stakes that create the goals and plot. It's common for stories like this to hit walls early on because there's no external plot, just the internal struggle.

(Here’s more on The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn't Another Person)

Overall, this isn’t working yet, because the point of view isn’t solid. I’d suggest deciding who your point of view character and narrator is (I assume Paul), and then showing the story through his eyes, using a teen voice and world view. This will also help avoid the telling issues, as you’d be showing the story through Paul’s eyes and not yours. The idea sounds like it could be an intense and engaging novel, but I don't think it's found its feet quite yet.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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5 comments:

  1. This is a very heavy way to open a middle grade book: death of entire family, church, guilt, etc. While middle grade can certainly deal with tough subjects, it does need to "feel" middle grade when opening the book.

    I agree whole hardly with Janice's comment that we only have an internal goal of overcoming guilt. I also think to sympathize with Paul, we need to know him more. Yes, we feel sorry for anyone who is in his situation, but is it enough to make us follow him. In my humble opinion, I think we need to "see" Paul in his everyday life and make a connection to him so our sympathy will be drawn to a character we know and like.

    Is there a reason you want this to be MG? I could see this being a YA novel, where Paul is fixated on being a firefighter. He could be a junior firefighter and his external goal is to save others which will help him overcome his guilt for not saving his own family. The movie TWISTER has a plot where Helen Hunt is fixated on finding a warning system for tornados so families don't die like hers did. I think something like that will give your character a strong internal and external goal.

    Also, think of your secondary character and your antagonist. Again, in TWISTER, Bill Paxton plays a great secondary character bringing in yet another conflict. The other news team along with the Tornados prove to be great antagonists.

    Finding the right narrative for this story will very much depend on how you want to tell it, but like Janice points out, it needs to be clear and consistent.

    There's a great story buried here in how a person can survive, grow, and change from tragedy. With a couple of drafts, you can flush out many of Paul's needs, which will help you build a terrific story.

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  2. I am not a regular reader of YA so I may not be aware of the genre conventions, but my feedback is as follows:

    I loved the opening’s descriptive power—things like the candle snuffer as a staff & other things really brought the Vicar to life. He seems compassionate & caring. We don’t “see” Paul as clearly as the vicar but since it’s Paul’s POV (most of the time) that’s understandable.

    I read this submission without paying much attention to the background note, since I assume there will be no explanatory note for the reader. The majority of what is written sounds like it would be fine for a 7-8th grade reader. The only line that didn’t ring true to me was Paul saying “…evening of magic and majesty. The swirl of peace…” That didn’t quite strike me as something a young boy would say, especially given the style of his responses in the rest of the passage.

    A couple points of confusion: What’s the time period? Where are they? And what prompted the Vicar to speak to Paul in the first place? Is Paul sitting there the last person after everyone else has just left a service? Did he come to the church specifically to seek the Vicar out? At the end of the scene we see the tension but not at the beginning. How does Vicar know Paul is in trouble? And is trouble the right word here? Usually if someone observes a person is in trouble they’ve just stolen a car, or something like that. As mentioned above, presumably there will be no explanatory note in the story prior to start of the opening chapter, which means the opening scene needs to be clear—so it seems appropriate to start the scene where the tension starts. For me, the most tension came with the very last sentence about his family’s death.

    Family loss certainly seems like an appropriate topic for any age level, including 7-8th graders. But context will be important---can they identify with the setting, etc. which at present are not clear (i.e. time/place). The one thing I am unfamiliar with is the typical ‘tone’ of a 7-8th grade audience novel. We don’t know yet how this story will progress—will it be a mixture of light-heartedness and somber moments? Will it be maudlin? That to me will make a difference in how this age group would receive it. I don’t think of this age group as being fixated on the down side of life—they are bright and hopeful and while they certainly may have dealt with tragedy, at that age they still have resilience.

    There are a few instances where you can probably convert some telling to showing but overall you have a pretty good balance here. Thank you for submitting!

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  3. I agree, the style of presenting this is Telling, and not really right for a 7th-8th grade tale.

    Any story depends on starting with the right mood and moment to interest the reader, and gong quickly into what it's about. For this, you're trying to give a 7th grader a first impression that they can relate to, that fits what the story's about to reveal without (I think) simply opening with "I killed my family."

    The best way to write MG stories (or any genre, but especially writing for an age) is to read them, and look at what they cover and how. What stories take on a subject this serious, and how do they present it? Is Paul telling the story to the vicar the best way, or should he be putting it in narration first, or even showing the fire first? --Not that you have to change the plot to match other books, but you can see how they handle each approach and decide which works for you, and what you can learn from it.

    The more you look at those, the more you can see how you may want to set this up. What's the right balance of viewpoints for you, the right pace? How do you keep a young reader interested in something this dark while giving them some lifeline of hope, and even fun?

    For instance, are you writing for readers who genuinely have a loss this great, or is it more to give the ones who don't some understanding of it? The more it's the former, the more you can immerse yourself in the feelings themselves as long as there's some lifeline visible. The more it's the latter, you're explaining *what* might happen to satisfy their curiosity and help them feel prepared.

    This needs to be very subtle writing, especially because of the age. The more you know what you want and what other writers have made work, the better you can bring it to life.

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  4. You have received excellent guidance from Janice, which is easy to understand and apply, especially if you utilize the links she provides.

    I will only add this: My one question while reading was: whatcha been doing for the last year, Paul? This question led me to 'seeing' this as a scene for the close of the book. The point where Paul has reached a point of strength or acceptance or forgiveness and finally can visit the church that represents the last time his family gathered to celebrate a special holiday.

    A year is a long time when navigating grief, and as a kid jolted into adult-size loss it would be an eternity. I wondered who he has been living with while trying to deal with such a stupendous loss, as well as feeling he had 'killed' his family. I wondered if he had simply been suffering for a year without support and had finally been driven to go to the church -- to remember -- and had never, in the previous year, revealed his feelings of guilt. I wondered what his life was like for that year, who helped him, what school was like, did he lose friends as well? Many questions about the past year...

    This scene, to me, is about forgiveness and absolution, closure... So, I want to know the 'why' of it. Why is he there? Why wait a year? Is this the first healing step or the first admittance of guilt long harbored?

    You have a solid idea that can provide a 'safe' path for young readers to explore scary stuff like immense loss or feeling extreme guilt. Such a story can show how courage is found and fear is overcome.

    Good luck! :O)

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    Replies
    1. I like the idea of this as a scene at/near the end of the book.

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